A child’s young life is filled with new experiences. There are those firsts, like the first taste of ice cream or the first sight of an ocean. There are special memories, like a fifth birthday or skating on a frozen lake. There are many new discoveries, like visiting the zoo or learning how to read.
This fleeting season is like a passing breeze in the evening compared to the rest of a child’s life, but it is precious to form their young spirits. These weeks and months are rich with the potential for spiritual formation.
As a pastor for family discipleship and children’s ministries, I see how open children’s hearts often are, with a kind of eagerness to learn that is distinct to childhood. Our part as parents is to nurture their hearts toward Christ through prayer, God’s word, and patient love, while trusting the Spirit to minister to them as only he can. We cannot change our children’s hearts. But we can welcome the Spirit’s work as we join him in exalting the name of Jesus Christ in our homes.
How God Moves Before Conversion
Picture five draft horses harnessed together, steadily pulling a plow. Those five strong horses represent five graces that I have seen the Spirit often use to draw souls to Jesus. When applied to children, these graces can patiently nurture and till the soil of a child’s heart, even before regeneration. I have given these five graces names: drawing grace, leading grace, understanding grace, displaying grace, and paying-attention grace. Each grace has a distinct theme, with some overlap, and each is filled with extraordinary potential.
Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . . It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:44, 63). The theme of drawing grace is life in Jesus. What are the various ways the Spirit may draw, one step at a time, a young soul closer to Christ?
Every moment of a child’s life, every situation and relationship, can become a place where the Spirit is moving. He does not wait to tend to a heart at the point of regeneration. Consider the following as examples of the countless ways he uses “the normal” in our children’s lives:
A mother’s song overheard by a child in the womb
A warm embrace by dad as he prays a blessing on a second birthday
Overheard confession and forgiveness between a mom and a dad
The winsome heralding of a preacher on Sunday morning
Simple prayers offered by grandparents over their grandchildren
A kind word from a Sunday school teacher
The Spirit is often on the move in the normal routines of a child’s life, even before regeneration. We have the privilege of being alert to this daily Spirit-wrought work, which will lead us to join Paul in learning to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Drawing grace calls us to live and pray by the Spirit in the familiar and mundane.
Paul says, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
The theme of leading grace is the kindness of God — kindness that is intended to bring the gift of repentance (2 Timothy 2:25). Let us ask the Father in Jesus’s name for such a gift, and then with his help guide our children in a way that is in step with his leading.
As we lead our children with kindness, especially during moments of merciful correction, we can cultivate the spiritual formation of our children before regeneration. May we see discipline through this lens and foster a home environment of kindness, patience, and love.
Again, Paul writes,
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . . The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:12, 14)
The theme of understanding grace is teaching our children the Bible and praying for the Spirit to press down God’s word into their hearts and minds — especially the great truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can get children to speak and repeat truth, which is good, but only the Spirit can transform our children to trust truth and love truth — to trust and love Truth himself. So, we teach children the Bible patiently and prayerfully.
Displaying grace revels in beholding the patience of Christ toward sinners. Paul writes, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Paul’s use of the word were emphasizes the pre-regenerating work of the Spirit. Paul received mercy so that future believers would see that mercy and then go on to receive mercy. How we as parents, grandparents, and fruit-bearing servants among children should love this special grace!
As Paul personally recounts God’s mercy upon him in Christ, his heart overflows: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). Displaying grace especially works through parents who are being recaptured by the wonder of this good news by rehearsing it and calling it to mind. As they do, they will sing not only with their voices but with the countenance of their hearts while young ears listen in and young eyes watch. As our children see God’s mercy displayed in us, the Spirit can stir up in them a yearning to receive the same mercy.
Luke writes, “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).
This is the climactic grace, the grace which all the previous heart-cultivating graces have been striving for. In a moment, the Spirit finally opens the hearts of our children to pay attention to the gospel in a different way than they have previously — and there is life.
Some moments create a special opportunity for God to give this paying-attention grace. We don’t put all of our hope in these specific moments, and with God’s help we will not despair when these do not turn out as we hoped, but it seems fitting to consider them from time to time. Times that may stir up this kind of conversation include:
A Good Friday or Resurrection Sunday service
A funeral or memorial service
An unexpected moment of fear or suffering, such as an accident or the diagnosis of cancer
A memorable sermon on a normal Sunday
A family worship time that is particularly moving
Consider how to make the most of whatever special markers God by his providence has provided you. They truly are gifts.
Show Them Christ
We can ask God for help to be alert to what the Spirit is doing in our children’s lives, and be on the lookout for those five horses tilling the soil of the hearts of our children and grandchildren.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I haven’t seen any of these graces in my son or daughter,” and your heart is heavy. Perhaps you have a child who is already 10, or 25. What would I say to you?
First, I would remind you that Jesus is moved by your hurting heart, and your Father knows your cries even before you pray them (Matthew 6:8). Consider Psalm 94:19: “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.”
Second, remember that the best of parents cannot make one soul live. This is not a responsibility designed for us. It is easier for parents of the 10-year-old to fall into this trap, so let us learn from the parents of the 25-year-old. It is likely that these parents have learned their inability to give spiritual life. We will find freedom when we yield to the Spirit the work that he alone can do.
Third, keep praying to the Father in Jesus’s name, and hope through tears. Whether it’s a 10-year-old or a 25-year-old, love them during this season in obvious ways, and patiently keep pointing them to Christ, who is supreme in love.
Point on, dear friends, with a loving tone in your parenting and a hopeful heart in your God.